Greek Poetry of the 2000s from Making an Object to Curating a Performance

The Greek poets of the 2000s, the Generation of the Left Melancholy, have a strong civic awareness and are very interested in the public presentation of their work. To them, poetry making does not end with writing verses but extends to the domain of their circulation broadly understood. In the latter, we may distinguish two general modes of involvement, a representational and a dramatic one. The representational circulation of poetry emphasizes the image while the dramatic one is based on action.

We can trace this schematic distinction back to the artistic and philosophical debates in the 1960s about the status and direction of the arts, starting with the observation by art critic and historian Michael Fried that there was “a war going on [] between the theatrical and the pictorial.” Fried could still claim that “it is above all to the condition of painting and sculpture [] that the other modernist arts, most notably poetry and music, aspire” (“Art and Objecthood,” Artforum, Summer 1967, p. 22). Yet his defense of autonomous and a-temporal art from the burst of theatricality (including the anti-theatrical one) was doomed to failure. Art critic Harold Rosenberg was already discussing the artwork as “anxious object” (1964). With the rapid dissolution of notions of structure and bankruptcy of criteria for quality, increasingly arts aspired to the condition of theatrum mundi, having moved from the pictorial/representational to the theatrical/dramatic. As cultural theorist Mieke Bal put it, theatricality became simultaneously the dominant mode of artistic composition, representation, and reception.

When it comes to their work beyond the page, the poets of the 2000s are very interested and involved in how their work appears in public – not in how it is received but what exactly is collaboratively created. They have been experimenting with illustrating, illuminating, supplementing, reciting, composing, enacting, dispersing, accompanying it, and so on. Although a performative approach seems to prevail, earlier ones are still being used. Here I will not map the terrain of those approaches but I will offer a genealogy divided in 4 successive, though obviously overlapping too, stages.

In the span of fifty years, from the 1960s to the 2000s, applied and theoretical understanding of all cultural production has traversed 4 stages, moving –

1. from object to event to environment to performance
2. from work to action to assemblage to enactment
3. from product to audience to space to time
4. from presentness to presence to presentation to re-presentation
5. from making to doing to installing to curating

The Left Melancholic poets so active and visible today in all domains of public culture across all Greece may be placed along this chronological table according to their artistic engagement (through photography, typography, music, theater, painting etc.) with the poetic production itself. At the Modernist end, some of them see an artwork that is, as an autonomous object, a product of making and achieves presentness (Fried’s art defeating theater); at the Post-modernist end, some see a performance that is the enactment in time of a curating (Butler’s performativity transposing Fried’s last word, “grace,” from Christian faith to Foucauldian style).

Here poet, performer, and academic Phoebe Giannisi performs live her poetry in 2014.

My highly pictorial “other self,” pianist Pantelis Polychronidis, and I often discuss relations among various arts, from antiquity to modernity, and often find ourselves standing on very different artistic grounds and advocating different views, which reminds us what a tremendous difference the distribution within public culture of the systematic crafts and disciplined skills can make.

March 8, 2016

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